Friday, August 15, 2003

Dhaka Days: Another Two-fer

As my visit to Bangladesh nears its end I’ve been trying to cram as much culture and community into my life as possible. Sleep is sacrificed for sharing, shopping, and self-exploration in the context of a cultural experience so alien it can hardly be put into words. A kind of desperation sets in as time runs out, and I fear that blogging has suffered in return. Tonight like all previous nights I am wholly exhausted; tonight like most before it I’ll choose documentation over body-maintenance even though I am reminded of the limits of language and memory in tandem: that no blog, no matter how long or thorough, can really capture as much as a tenth of what is happening to me, to us, to the universe.

In the interest of keeping blog-as-medium a reverse linear activity – to wit, a communicative infrastructure in which more recent information rises to the top of the blog like cream – I’ll try to put this one in temporally backwards. So:

Finally figured out why people in this country keep asking if I want to wash my face; I just scrubbed up a bit to keep alert during the blogentry and turned the washcloth grey.

We’d just got back from Asparagus, a W.S. Maugham-story-themed Thai, Chinese, and Indian restaurant choice recommended by the concierge, who I must remember to thank – we were getting sick of eating in the hotel every night, and Azra’s not a big fan of the spices in the weekly Friday night Sri Lankan hotel buffet. The mango milkshake starter was creamy and sweet, Henry finally got enough to eat, although via a strange combination of curries and garlic nan, fried rice, wonton soup, and a cucumber-heavy garden salad. Azra and I also shared a sharply spicy beef in garlic sauce and a cabbage dish in something dark and oyster-sauce-y. It was wonderful to get out for a new ritual just the three of us.

Shopping in a finally-found local crafts shop beforehand with Azra. As before, gift-recipients may be reading, so no details herein. Beautiful and finally ethic stuff, though – it’s been otherwise frustratingly difficult to find anything other than western clothes and eastern cloths, cheap in terms of both in price and quality, on our now-daily shopping excursions both guided and self-finagled.

We were dropped off there by George and driver Ibrahim fresh back from a lengthy tour of the Dhaka we’d not yet really seen, having been suburban-locked most of the trip so far – even the airport is just around the corner here. Many pictures to share when I return, some taken successfully from the speeding car window as we passed busses driving two abreast on potholed one-laners, others taken at the stops George had chosen as most sightsee-worthy: underwater brick factories run only in the drier summer months when the waters have receded; a high cement monument of pointy and immense proportions outside a teeming local market we were rushed past without even a thought for local roadside handicrafts, rough-cut fresh coconuts with straws, and sugar cane juice grinders of tin cans and simple gears; a new amusement park typically both familiar and yet essentially and uniquely South Asian; a bank of ferries and medium-sized picnic boats bullhorn-blaring the loudest music imaginable into the ether (George says that the louder the music is, the better the party is seen to be).

I had joined the tour late and lunchless, met at Westecs, a local chainstore much like a slightly larger and more densely-packed Van Heusen but with far better prices even by the value-standard of the coke translation (see below entries); I got there via Sumi and Asif, who had been drilling away at my root-canaled tooth in their home-based but highly professional dental surgery for over an hour previous while their young daughter drew in pen on the high dentist’s stools and the rest of our international party relaxed and lunched at the hotel after a prayer-shortened penultimate day of PowerPoint teaching all Henry’s aegis. Yes, that’s right, I went for the crown-work here after all – Sumi’s by now a trusted friend and student, and when I found out that she had a husband whose specialty was not only root canals and capping but lecturing on same subject in the local dental college, I couldn’t resist taking the Lonely Planet guidebook up on their suggestion that, and I quote, “Dhaka has excellent dentists, and if you have a lot of work to do (eg, root canal) you can probably pay for your trip by using them instead of a more expensive dentist in the west.” As the price paid was less than a tenth of what it would cost in the west and my dental insurance is all used up until next Januray, long after the temporary filling was expected to crack, I think – I hope – that both they and I got a good deal financially out of the work, although I feel a little badly about realizing and acting on the possibility so late in the game, as it seems to have cost the family their weekend afternoon off.

Work had ended at 11:00 this morning, of course, as this is a Muslim country, and Friday afternoon is prayer throughout the city, even if not much was closed as we had expected. Surely there were many at prayer, as Ibrahim said that the roads were much less busy than usual (though they still seemed madly congested and dangerously scary to me), but it seems to only come up in the internationally-typically-secular middle class when things break on Fridays: Sumi said that the reason was that the thingee they use to suction spit out of mouths during surgery was breaking down was that “nothing works on Fridays;” George had said the same when we saw a bus half off the road during our later fast-paced tourism jaunt.

Last night was an eye-opener, too: the entire international group of fourteen (including George) had been invited to the extraordinarily upper-class home of a borad member and her Pharmeceutical-company-owning husband, but the nominal reason for the event was that the High Commissioner (Ambassador) of Nigeria to Bangladesh was being bid farewell after a stint of several years. As guest-of-honor, the in-passing Ambassador was too busy to do more than shake hands, but I managed to have some wonderful conversations with a holy-God-host of other Ambassoadorial types from all sorts of amazing and fascinating countries while the rest of the Aga Khan visitors, apparently not as naturally socialite-ist as I am, mostly talked among themselves on a couple of couches. Collected business cards from the world’s powerful people and spent most of the evening chatting with the Ambassador from the Philippines, a man of encyclopedic knowledge and a surprising interest in issues of language, symbology, media and communications. The food was exquisite, and other than green watermelon and the world’s largest in-shell giant prawns, indescribable.

Yesterday afternoon had been for local shopping. Sumi took us to a too-hot and too-crowded building crammed with tiny shoppes selling saris and silk, once we all sweat through our clothes in a matter of seconds we waited in the van while the two members of our party from India worked bargain-basement miracles for saris not to the taste of the rest of us. After balloons for Patricia in honor of her birthday, we went back to the shopping plaza of the day before, where Azra and I never made it off the almost-all-silk third floor despite men’s clothes just one floor down which both of us wanted to ultimately browse but had no time for. To my immense disappointment the silk available to travelers here in this country is so incredibly thin, and of such poor quality, that it would have no practical use in a country not characterized by sari-wearing and daily summer heat in the mid to high nineties. I ended up buying only a few cotton cloth strips intended as saris but surely most likely to end up table runners or even wall hangings back home.

And before that, work, including some great conversations about cultural change and east-west cultural outlooks with visiting-from-Canada teacher Hugh, and of courts the usual morning breakfast buffet, where I was brave enough to try the cheap mutton sausages but never got past their shiny hot-dog looks, and before that the documentation’s already occurred; see previous entry for more if you’re just back from hiatus or new to the blog herein.

Haven’t tried emailing Darcie in a few days because I’ve been unable to get to my school-based email account server; I’m assuming the US East Coast blackout which makes the newspaper front-pages here is affecting home as well. I hope she’s reading the blog nonetheless. Baby, are you out there? I miss you terribly (haven’t had much practice at it, I suppose, which is a wonderful thing), and hope things are well; let me know any way you can what’s going on at home.

By the way – in case anyone hasn’t noticed, the timestamp which accompanies each blogentry is still set to the stateside clock. For those keeping score, it’s just about three a.m. again, and I have to call George tomorrow morning at 8:30 to make hartal-safe arrangements to visit the American Club before the entirety of our teaching-and-learning group, both international travelers and local Aga Khan-ites, are taken out to dinner by the school board. Here’s hoping I can stay awake that long. Maybe the expected riots, low-key though they may turn out to be, will help.

posted by boyhowdy | 4:29 PM |

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